Challengers director Luca Guadagnino explains reason for Spider-Man reference in Zendaya scene

Challengers director Luca Guadagnino has revealed why his Zendaya-led film includes a nod to Spider-Man – and it’s nothing to do with the actor’s connection to the franchise.

Written by playwright and novelist Justin Kuritzkes, Challengers stars Zendaya as Tashi, a professional tennis player-turned-coach who becomes the focus of a love triangle between two friends and sporting rivals, played by Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor.

In the film, Tashi’s young daughter Lily interrupts a heated argument between Zendaya and Faist’s characters to ask if she can watch the animated film Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse instead of the tennis match playing on their TV.

Speaking to Entertainment Weekly, Guadagnino said the Spider-Man “in-joke” was unintentional and the decision had actually been for production ease.

Guadagnino explained getting rights for another title to be used in a movie is “very complicated” so, he’d asked the film’s producer, Amy Pascal, if they could use one of her catalogue’s projects.

The director then had the choice between using the Facebook drama The Social Network (2010), the Pentagon Papers thriller The Post (2017), or the animation Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.

“[Lily’s a girl; she’s not going to choose to watch The Social Network or The Post ,” Guadagnino said. “But maybe she’s going to watch a Spider-Man cartoon.

Mike Faist, Zendaya and Josh O’Connor in ‘Challengers’ (AP)
Mike Faist, Zendaya and Josh O’Connor in ‘Challengers’ (AP)

“Now I realise that it sounded like an in-joke,” he added. “Which, you know, the unconscious guides us all the time.”

Fans who watched Challengers over its opening weekend (26 April) rushed to share their reactions to the unexpected Spider-Man reference on social media.

“The fact that we know Spider-Man exists in the Challengers universe is so funny,” one person wrote.

“Such a cute little moment,” another said, while a third user claimed “everyone gasped” in their cinema when the Spider-Man line was spoken.

It comes after Challengers screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes revealed he had taken inspiration for the tennis psychodrama from Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka.

Kuritzkes shared at a recent press conference that the film’s characters were not inspired by any real tennis players. Instead, he explained that the premise came from his fascination with the tennis match between Williams and Osaka at the 2018 US Open.

That match saw Osaka, then 20, defeat tennis legend Williams in three straight sets to become the first Japanese tennis player to win a Grand Slam singles title.

Director Luca Guadagnino said the film’s reference to Spider-Man had nothing to do with Zendaya (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures)
Director Luca Guadagnino said the film’s reference to Spider-Man had nothing to do with Zendaya (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures)

Osaka’s historic moment, however, was dominated by Williams’s extraordinary meltdown after the umpire gave her three code violations for receiving coaching, smashing her racquet in anger and verbal abuse for accusing him of being a “thief” for docking her a point.

“Immediately, this struck me as this intensely cinematic situation,” Kuritzkes said, according to Business Insider. “You’re all alone on your side of the court and there’s this one other person in this massive tennis stadium who cares as much about what happens to you as you do, but you can’t talk to them.

“What if it was something beyond tennis? What if it was something that was going on with the two of you? What if it involved the person on the other side of the net? How would you have that conversation and how could you communicate the tension of that situation using the tools that are specific to film?

“That was really where it all started for me.”

Challengers is in cinemas now.